TEXAS VIEW: Robocalls spread scams across the country


Most days, you can’t pick up your phone without being subjected to a robocall from some scammer trying to steal your hard-earned money.

Robocalls are automated calls that use a computerized system to deliver recorded messages to cellphones and landlines. By now, most of us are familiar with the shtick. You get a call from a debt collector. Or maybe it’s from a health insurance provider, a financial lender, the Internal Revenue Service, the FBI, your electric company, a political action committee or Microsoft.

Why do they keep calling? Because we keep answering the phone.

Americans were blasted by 3.36 billion robocalls in April — up 6.5 percent from a record set in March, according to the YouMail Robocall Index, a provider of voicemail and call-blocking services. That breaks down to 1,297 robocalls every second, in case you were wondering.

Three of the Top 10 affected area codes nationwide are in Texas, according to the Federal Trade Commission. An estimated 49.3 million robocalls were made in Houston’s 832 area code in April. The numbers are even worse in Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, where an estimated 48.9 million calls came from the 214 area code and another 32 million came from the 817 area code.

And here’s another number for you: the Federal Trade Commission estimates fraud from unwanted calls costs consumers about $9.5 billion annually.

The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 should protect against these calls, but advances in technology have moved well beyond Congress’ imagination.

Phone spam skyrocketed thanks to two things. The first is the rise of the Voice over Internet Protocol, a series of standards that allow users of services like Skype or Google Voice to call someone halfway around the world for nearly nothing. But while it lowers the cost for people around the world to communicate, it also means open-source software can let a single computer hooked to the web make thousands of calls an hour.

The second is the easy ability to “spoof” a phone number. Spoofing is the technique of faking the number that shows up on your phone’s caller ID. “Neighborhood spoofing,” a relatively new technique, mimics target area codes and exchanges, according to the Federal Communications Commission. In reality, many of these calls originate in another state or overseas.

No one wants to end VoIP; almost everyone wants to stop spoofing. And a consortium of telecom industry engineers are testing a couple possible different solutions. Basically, the technology prevents the automated calls from ringing through by identifying suspicious phone numbers, similar to how email spam filters catch unwanted emails. Industry experts say both solutions are still a work in progress, although a gradualy rollout could begin in 2019.

In addition, Congress is contemplating legislation that would require all phone carriers to make call-blocking tools available for free to customers.

None of this will immediately end the onslaught of robocalls. And it doesn’t mean you’ll never get another unwanted phone call; but it’s a start.

Here are some tips if you do get a robocall.

  • Hang up the phone. Don’t press 1 to speak to a live operator, and don’t press any other number to get your number off the list. If you respond by pressing any number, it will probably just lead to more robocalls.
  • Consider contacting your phone provider and asking them to block the number, and whether they charge for that service. Remember that telemarketers change caller ID information easily and often, so it might not be worth paying to block a number that will change.
  • Report your experience to the FTC at ftccomplaintassistant.gov or ftc.gov/complaint. You can also call (888) 382-1222.
  • File a complaint with the FCC at consumercomplaints.fcc.gov. The phone number is (888) 225-5322.
  • The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority hotline is (844) 574-3577. That number is staffed from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.